Spend enough time with Bryan Cranston and he’ll show you the imaginary dial he uses to visualize how someone — anyone, including you — lives life.
“I came up with this gauge 15, 20 years ago,” he says, launching into a monologue with the easy volubility he shares with Lyndon B. Johnson, the former U.S. president he portrays on Broadway. Then he casually proceeds to show off the gifts for emotional insight and physical transformation that helped turn “Breaking Bad” and his character Walter White into pop-culture sensations.
He sketches out a half-circle in front of him on the table, with the past on the left, the future on the right and the present in the middle. It’s a pie-wedge image he usually illustrates with a couple of knives on the edge of a dinner table, but here, he’s improvising with two smartphones and a coffee mug.
“Some people, they live in the past a lot,” he says, dialing up the needle on the past so that it takes up the majority of the gauge. “My mother was like that. She was happier in days gone by. She always wanted to reminisce, because she wasn’t happy in her current life.”
Then he reverses the proportions of the pie wedges and transforms into a bitter old man, focused always on brighter days ahead. He even extemporizes a few lines: “ ‘In the future, I’m gonna go fishing every day. Right now I hate my job, I hate my life, but when I retire … ’ ”
Then he turns back into himself and widens the middle third of the pie so that only thin slices remain at either end of the spectrum. “This is where I need to live as an actor, to be able to be in the here and now and focus on that.”
You can’t blame Cranston for savoring this particular moment in time. That wide wedge of Now finds his career at a height any actor would envy. He’s a serious contender for a Tony Award on June 8 for his lead performance in “All the Way,” and the show itself is up for top play honors. This comes on the heels of five acclaimed seasons and three consecutive acting Emmy wins for “Breaking Bad,” the AMC series that slow-burned into a cultural phenomenon by the time the show ended last year. With a sky-high reputation in the industry, a production deal for his company, Moon Shot Entertainment, at Sony Pictures Television, and feature films in the works — including one he’s written and hopes to direct — Cranston lives in a present where he can do pretty much anything he wants.
His attitude jibes with what his colleagues describe as a gift for improv, and helps explain how he’s become an actor who’s always zagging when you expect him to zig. Going from soapy melodrama in “Loving” to comic blunders in “Malcolm in the Middle” to moral decline in “Breaking Bad,” the shape-shifting actor followed his iconic turn as Walter White with a monster movie — “Godzilla,” which earned a crushing $93.2 million in its opening weekend at the U.S. box office — and a nearly yearlong commitment to, of all things, a Broadway play.
And not just any play. Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” is a hefty piece of political history about President Johnson’s twin battles for civil rights and re-election following the Kennedy assassination. The show runs three hours, and Cranston is onstage for nearly all of it.
Cranston, 58, has become one of Hollywood’s hottest properties at an age that’s considered, by showbiz standards at least, late in life. It’s for that reason, according several of the people he’s worked with, that he’s able to ride the awards fervor and the hype while remaining grounded and gracious.
Case in point: When a teen fan at the stage door of “All The Way” implored him to record a message as Walter White asking a young woman to be his prom date, Cranston happily obliged. “Maddie,” he said into the phone, “if you don’t go to the prom with Stefan, then maybe your best course of action would be to tread lightly.”
In the video of the prom request — which has gone viral — Cranston shifts instantly into the deep voice of Heisenberg, the ferocious drug dealer whom sad-sack Walter becomes over the course of “Breaking Bad.” The actor is just as transformative in conversation, describing his youthful idea of LBJ as “an old stodgy fuddy-duddy.” To illustrate, he slips into LBJ — the jaw sets, the voice turns measured, the hands go rigid and declamatory — and then just as swiftly, he slides back out of him.
“He has this ability to make himself somehow taller onstage, and more heavyset,” says Bill Rausch, who directed Cranston in “All the Way.” “I’m always astonished when he comes bounding out for the curtain call. His face looks different. His body looks different.”
The nearly 6’0” Cranston wears two-inch lifts to get him closer to LBJ’s 6’4” frame, and he applies prosthetic earlobes before every show. “The rest of Johnson’s beauty is my own,” he cracks. “He has all the facial qualities that every man wants. Thin lips, beady eyes, furrowed brows and excess skin. It’s all there.”
The physical versatility of the actor is obvious in his TV work, too. In the first episode of “Breaking Bad,” Walter, in the depths of despair, tries to shoot himself, fails, accidentally switches off the safety and, flailing, fires a shot into the pavement beside him. That incongruous, inspired bit of clowning isn’t a choice most actors would make.
His unconventional streak likely stems from the fact that he never trained to be an actor. Growing up in what he describes as a “lower-lower income” household in Southern California with an actor father and a radio-actress mother, he appeared in a few commercials as a child. But by the time he was a teenager, he was working seriously toward a career as a policeman, which was his goal until, lured by the prospect of co-eds, he took an acting class in junior college.
He readily admits he doesn’t follow a set method. “I don’t have any specific approach, because I don’t have the formal education,” he says. “I’m open to anything. An impulse here, a sensibility there. Sometimes what comes to me first is physical and sometimes it’s emotional.”
Fans will be surprised to learn that for his fearlessly pratfall-prone performance as patriarch Hal in “Malcolm in the Middle,” it was the character’s emotional core — fear — that came first to him. For Walter White, on the other hand, the initial revelation was physical.
“Walt was in depression, and he carried the burden of the world on his shoulders, so he was rounded and not erect in his posture. He gave up. There was no reason to stand up straight,” Cranston says, molding his body accordingly. “Until he became Heisenberg, and then his chest was out and his shoulders were back, and he felt strong.”
In “All the Way,” his performance is informed by footnotes and throwaway lines he’s read about Johnson, helping him to imagine a man whose nonstop work ethic and knotted anxiety result in an individual with stomach issues and a back problem — the physical manifestations of which he works into his performance. “It’s just to give a sense of the battle that was going on, not only politically but in his own body and mind,” Cranston says.
That ability to translate his understanding of a character into both the poignant and the palpable forms the bedrock of his performances. “He’s so perceptive about human nature and about what makes a person tick,” Rausch says.
For Cranston, the more time he has in a role, the more comfortable it becomes — turning into an old friend of sorts. “If you play them for a long time, there are these talismans,” he says. “Walt’s glasses and his khakis and his desert boots, or LBJ’s pants with the high waist — that get you into it. People who meditate or do yoga, if they go to the same room all the time to meditate, pretty soon, the instant they walk into that room … ” He lets out a zen breath of relaxation. “Because that room represents meditation to them. It’s the same thing with a character.”
The fact that Cranston chose to follow up his career-making TV performance with a run on Broadway strikes observers as an unusual move, even if it’s starting to seem like everyone’s doing it. This Broadway season alone, Neil Patrick Harris finished off nine years in “How I Met Your Mother” with the Tony-nominated revival of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and Michael C. Hall wrapped up eight seasons on “Dexter” with the current Rialto play “The Realistic Joneses.” This summer, Cranston’s “Breaking Bad” co-star Anna Gunn will appear Off Broadway in the play “Sex With Strangers.”
For Cranston, part of the lure of Broadway was that it would be seen as a break from the TV industry and from all the expectations that can come with Hollywood success.
“People have a tendency to find something that someone does well and say, ‘Oh, he’s a comedy guy,’ or, ‘He’s a drama guy,’ ” he says. “Before I got ‘Malcolm in the Middle,’ I was a drama guy. Then I was the comedy guy, and suddenly the goofy dad was going to be Walter White? Hopefully by my insistence on not repeating, and not being a derivative of myself, I can maybe break that cycle a little bit.”
Live theater also holds its own creative appeal. Number Cranston among the many thesps who cite the artistic jolt a performer gets from an audience as one of the top draws in treading the boards.
In film and TV, he explains, an actor provides an array of takes on a single moment and then leaves it in the hands of the gods — or at least of the editor — to choose what makes the final cut. “You have very little control over that,” he says. “In the theater you have control. You guide the performance.”
Cranston’s colleagues describe a fierce professionalism paired with a lightning sense of humor that sets the tone for the overall working environment around him. Gunn paints him as both the “Breaking Bad” cast’s fearless leader and, at the right moments, its class clown.
“We lightened the mood as much as we could between takes, which we needed because the material could get so heavy,” she says. “There was a lot of playing with props and hiding props and surprising me with various stages of undress, which I always found quite amusing.”
“All the Way” producer Jeffrey Richards describes Cranston as “cherished” backstage, both as a leader and as part of the ensemble. Brandon J. Dirden, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. opposite Cranston’s LBJ, calls the actor one of the most inventive he’s ever worked with, and adds that his tirelessness inspires everyone in the production. “It’s why his understudy will never see the light of day,” he deadpans.
He’s also so competitive, Dirden notes, that he regarded the Easter Bonnet Competition — the annual, Broadway-wide fundraising drive for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS — as a personal challenge. He addressed the audience every night at curtain call, and auctioned off the leftover “All the Way” messenger bags that he had had made for opening-night gifts. When the fundraiser was over, the show had raised $186,424, the most of any nonmusical on Broadway.
The actor’s intensity, however, takes a toll. To preserve his voice on his day off, he has “mute Mondays.” “I’m tired all the time,” he admits, likening his current state to that of a sleepless parent of a newborn. “But this character is fierce. I don’t know how to ease up. So I just hit the gas pedal hard.
Cranston’s drive comes in part from the recognition that while “Breaking Bad” opened the door for him to appear on Broadway, he now has to deliver the goods every night to theatergoers — many of whom show up specifically to see him.
The production has been one of the strongest-selling plays on the Rialto since it began performances in March, and lately has started to earn more than $1 million per week, an unusual feat for a nonmusical.
For Richards, who landed Cranston just before “Breaking Bad” went stratospheric in the zeitgeist, the actor’s newly widened fan base is a happy accident. But the actor’s success was very much on the mind of Legendary’s Thomas Tull, a producer of “Godzilla.”
“ ‘Breaking Bad’ is one of those rare cultural phenomenons that’s cool to everyone,” Tull says. “Fans have a real affinity and appreciation for Bryan. It’s one of the many reasons we pursued him so passionately for ‘Godzilla.’ ” Cranston turned the gig down at first, but was swayed by director Gareth Edwards and his collaborators’ intention to make a well-written, character-driven monster movie.
In fact, Cranston touts “Follow the well-written word” as the credo of Moon Shot. The motto also has guided him in his directing gigs on shows such as “Modern Family” and “The Office,” extracurriculars he took because they’re “brilliantly written, terrific shows.”
Now that he doesn’t have to worry about money, Cranston is taking advantage of the freedom that brings. “I don’t want just a job. I never want to have another job in my life,” he says. “But I love to work.”
His next round of projects includes “Trumbo,” a biopic about the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, with director Jay Roach and co-star Helen Mirren; and his in-development crime thriller “Home Again.” He adapted the screenplay from the David Wiltse novel, and will direct.
“All the Way” wraps June 29, after which he intends to return to California to spend time with his wife and 21-year-old daughter, and “lay in a hammock.”
But he’s not thinking about that too much at the moment, since the future occupies only a small sliver of the life-dial of a man who lives life in the present.
And once he’s shown you that gauge, expect to be put on the spot. “Here it is,” he’ll say. “Where are you?”